As one of the longest running blues festivals in the country, located on the original "blues highway," Highway 61, the folks that plan, organize and conduct the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival on Fourth of July weekend are simply amazing. Year after year, the festival attracts some of the best blues talent in the world today, along with a sprinkling of gospel, jazz and zydeco to give the event its own unique flavor. With two stages operating almost non-stop, supplemented by blues workshops featuring numerous festival performers and the child oriented BlueSkool, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival ranks as one of my favorites.
As always the 2003 version of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival was loaded with talented local, regional, national and international acts ranging from Iowa Blues Challenge winner, Magic Mike & The Blue Slide to the ageless Henry Townsend, one of the last remaining bluesmen to have played with the immortal Robert Johnson. Throw in the "Father of the British Blues" John Mayall, "Zydeco Sweetheart" Rosie Ledet, blues diva Shemekia Copeland and fiery Chicago blues guitarist Son Seals, along with a host of other blues standouts, and you have all the fireworks that you need for a hot July 4th weekend on the Mississippi River! So much in fact, it definitely takes two people to cover the event. What follows is a day-by-day, blow-by-blow description of the festivities.
Day 1 - Thursday, July 3
The first day of the 19th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival started a bit early on a hot, steamy Thursday when Oklahoma blues legends D. C. and Selby Minner climbed on to the Tent Stage just before their scheduled 5:00 p.m. start time to begin a red hot afternoon and evening of the blues. This was the band's first visit to the festival, but not to the Quad Cities having spent a weeklong residency teaching in the Blues-in-the-Schools Program. Opening with a nice cover of Tracy Chapman's classic, "Give Me One Reason," the band got the growing audience at the Tent Stage moving with the music right from the very first note. Decked out in purple and black attire, D. C. and Selby Minner demonstrated the chemistry that they have developed over their 26-year collaboration. Between Selby Minner's fine voice and D. C. Minner's signature thumb-picked guitar style, the band offered the great sound and high energy required of a festival's opening act. The 60+ minute set included excellent, uniquely done covers like "Standing on Shakey Ground" and "Shadetree Mechanic," along with some fine original material like "Gotta Help Me" from their independent release, I Can Tell. The first set of the day ended with an encore of another D. C. Minner original entitled "Love Junkie." One set down and the stage was set for a great day of blues.
On the Main Stage, blues singer Jan James brought her talented group on stage to start the music at the other end of the festival grounds. Although the powerful-voiced singer was a bit under the weather with a bad cold, Jan gave the audience everything she had, backed by her talented band, led by long time musical partner, guitarist Craig Calvert. James made it clear from the start of her exceptional set that she was looking to make her self better known outside of her home base Chicago (via Detroit) and Europe, where she has found tremendous success, as have many other fine bluesmen and women for the past many years.
The day continued on the Tent Stage with the crowd-pleasing sounds of Molly Nova & The Hawk, an up and coming blues combo from the Twin Cities. Led by the unique sound of Molly Nova and her five string electric violin, the band really worked the growing crowd into a musical frenzy with a combination of original material and unique interpretations of songs like The Beatles, "Blackbird." According to one satisfied listener, Molly Nova "could have walked to Illinois" with her constant marching and movement across the stage. The enthusiasm that the band generated among the crowd resulted in Molly Nova & The Hawk playing several songs beyond their allotted time, with nary a soul leaving the tent until the band had played its final note.
The "Women of the Blues" emphasis of the festival's first day continued on the Main Stage as Albert Collins' alum and red hot guitarist, Debbie Davies, climbed on stage. The pixie-ish Davies demonstrated her magic during a 90 minute set that featured many of her recent recordings from Love The Game and her recent tribute to John Mayall, Key To Love. While Davies is an accomplished guitarist, she also sports an excellent voice and writes some excellent songs as well. It was particularly fun to see, as well has hear, Davies play as she is a very expressive and animated guitarist who kept an audience going despite the oppressive heat and humidity.
From a number of viewpoints, one of the highlights of the evening occurred when the Janiva Magness Band took to the Tent Stage as sun was setting over the festival. Magness is an extremely sexy and talented singer, originally from Detroit, Michigan, now relocated to Los Angeles, California. With her very-talented four-piece band, Magness riveted the crowd with her dominant vocals and her vamping with members of the band and the audience. The band opened without Magness on stage, performing two songs before bringing Janiva to the stage with vocals by sax player Paulie Cera. It was clear from her opening number, "I Got Everything I Need" that Magness would have the crowd eating out of her hand by the time she was finished. One of the early highlights of the set was when Janiva demonstrated her skills on rub board, donning her "endowed" instrument to perform "Mojo Boogie." The set got even better later when fresh off her set on the Main Stage, Debbie Davies got up on stage with the Janiva Magness Band and played not one, but two songs, "Cryin'" and "Matchbox." Mixed with Magness' own exceptional guitarist, George Friend, Davies took the set to an even higher level than it had already managed to achieve. Magness and Davies formed an immediate bond on stage, obviously enjoying the unexpected collaboration (as Magness indicated backstage following the completion of her set). Overall, the set was a great advertisement for the talented Janiva Magness Band and an immediate selling point for her newly released recording on Blues Leaf Records, Blues Ain't Pretty. Magness and her band are one act that everyone hopes to see more of in the Midwest.
Accompanying the fireworks show coming from the nearby baseball stadium, another form of fireworks were occurring on the Main Stage; these coming from the guitar of the very-talented Deborah Coleman. Coleman's guitar blazed, as did the fireworks exploding over the crowd during the set from the nearby baseball stadium. Coleman went through a number of songs from her ever-expanding song list, including several from her latest release, Soul Be It! The power, style and emotion packed into each of Coleman's solos was truly inspirational and left the audience shaking their heads in amazement at what Coleman was able to do with her guitar. Several fans were overheard commenting that it was one of the best performances that they had ever seen; fine praise for a guitarist who can hold her own with anyone in the business, male or female.
Rosie Ledet, The Zydeco Sweetheart, hit the stage full force playing a powerful, fast accordion and singing in her warm, rich, sensual voice on "Give Me Some (Brown) Sugar." This isn't pure zydeco, but rather a rocking zydeco with blues, or blues with an accent as Rosie calls it. She wowed the crowd with her constant, energetic motion on stage, big smile, and catchy, playful zydeco numbers like "Treat Your Dog Right." Her sultry singing and dancing were supported by a solid backing band which provided great instrumental energy and solid harmony on vocals. Rosie has attitude in her music, as in "You Never Call Me." Her sensual, drawn out vocals, fast, infectious accordion playing, and twisting, swaying dancing with her hair whipping back and forth made the crowd at the Tent Stage roar with enthusiasm. This band can also take it down slow and gritty with the blues. Rosie's singing and playing on the grinding blues of "Gone, Gone Baby" was a highlight of the show.
Shemekia Copeland ended the first ever all women blues day at the MSVB Festival with her rich, powerful vocals and great original songs at the Bandshell Stage. She worked her way through some of her great songs, such as "The Other Woman Was Me," "Looking for My Man," and the award winning "It's 2:00 AM." Shemekia's powerful, expressive voice rang out over the crowd, her great, energetic four piece backing band providing a steady, funky driving rhythm. Shemekia paid tribute to her father, Johnny Clyde Copeland, by singing his old hit, "Ghetto Child." You get an idea what a powerful, soulful singer she is when she stepped away from the microphone and sang without amplification briefly. Shemekia wowed the crowd with the title cut from her new CD, "Talking to Strangers." This strong, thoughtful song had her showing off all of her vocal talents, from low and rasping with emotion to soaring high with piercing vocals wailing with emotion. For her encore, Shemekia brought Deborah Coleman out to share vocal duties and play some guitar on a long, jamming version of "Let the Good Times Roll." Shemekia is not only a talented singer and songwriter, she is also a young lady whose music has deep roots and respect for the artists that came before her.
Day 2 - Friday, July 4
Day 2 of the Festival opened with more hot blues and threats of rain sometime during the evening hours. Despite the continued hot, humid weather and the expectation of rain, the crowd turned out en masse for the second day of music. While Day 1 of the Festival featured women of the blues and a number of newer, yet established acts; Day 2 offered a number of the more legendary performers of the blues including Blind Mississippi Morris, Cephas & Wiggins, Jody Williams with Carey Bell, Son Seals and the "Father of British Blues," John Mayall. Adding to the all-star line up for the day were Coco Montoya, D. C. Bellamy & America's Most Wanted and Little Jimmy Reed, along with local talents the Jack Spunk Combo and Iowa Blues Challenge winners, Magic Mike & The Blues Side.
Local blues talent opened at the Tent and Main Stages for Day 2 of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. Performing at either end of the festival grounds, the two bands, The Jack Spunk Combo and Magic Mike & The Blue Side, offered two very different styles. On the Tent Stage, The Jack Spunk Combo offered an hour long set of traditional Chicago style blues featuring well done covers of songs by Sony Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues legends, along with some tasty original material. Led by harpman/vocalist Jack Schmalfeldt, the band was very tight and very well received by the Festival early comers.
On the Main Stage, local favorite Magic Mike Cramer, brought his band, The Blue Side, up to thrill the crowd with a nice blend of jazz/rock influenced blues. Magic Mike & The Blue Side won the Iowa Blues Challenge to earn their place on the Main Stage to start off Day 2 of the Festival. Along with band mates Delayne Stallman (drums), Bob Dunn (bass) and Jason Danielson (keyboards), "Magic Mike" Cramer's fine guitar work clearly demonstrated why he is one of the local blues favorites in the Quad Cities.
Following The Jack Spunk Combo on the Tent Stage was one of the finest harp players in the world today, and perhaps one of the least known, Blind Mississippi Morris. Accompanied by his ling time friend and partner in crime, Brad Webb, Blind Mississippi Morris put on one fine set of Mississippi style blues filled with hill country sounds and great stories. According to Webb it was his and Mississippi Morris' first time ever in Iowa, performing, visiting or just traveling through.
Next up on the Main Stage was another respected but lesser known bluesman, Little Jimmy Reed. Although Little Jimmy is no relation to his more famous counterpart, Jimmy Reed, Little Jimmy pays regular tribute to the better known Reed by performing many of the songs that Jimmy Reed recorded and made famous many years ago. Performing both as a one-man act and with a band, Little Jimmy Reed got his name when he filled in for Jimmy Reed one night when he was unable to perform, with no one recognizing that they weren't hearing the real thing. For the Festival, Little Jimmy was backed up by harmonica player Hal Reed and his band, Bad Luck.
Hal Reed & Bad Luck opened the set with about 30 minutes of music sans Reed. When "showtime" arrived, Little Jimmy strode onto the stage, guitar in hand, decked out in black pants and a black shirt glimmering with gold leafs, Little Jimmy came equipped with his characteristic smile and a harmonica fixed around his neck, opening with the Jimmy Reed classic, "Big Bossman." Following with another Reed classic, "Honest I Do," Little Jimmy demonstrated some fine vocals and guitar, sounding very much like his namesake. On many of the songs, Little Jimmy performed the Jimmy Reed-style harp parts with able harpist Hal Reed providing back fills and taking the lead as necessary. The set was mixed with a number of Little Jimmy originals including several songs from his Vent Records CD, School's Out, including "Alabama's The Place To Be," "I'm A Fool For You Baby" and "School's Out," many songs carrying the signature Jimmy Reed style. The set was excellent, with Little Jimmy shining, well supported by the efforts of Hal Reed & Bad Luck.
At the tent, Piedmont Blues disciples john Cephas and Phil Wiggins took the stage to share their love of the acoustic blues sound with the growing crowd. Cephas and Wiggins provided some of the most basic, infectious, and enthusiastic Piedmont and Delta style blues of the entire festival with their enthusiastic, heart-felt playing on Saturday. John Cephas is a brilliant, rag style, finger picking guitarist and a powerful singer in his rich, warm, baritone voice. Partner Phil Wiggins adds his raw, often dirty-toned harmonica playing and occasional vocal harmonies for bright, positive blues that are a straight-to-the- heart, foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time. Their cover of "Key to the Highway" had smooth, expressive guitar by Cephas, his great vocals, and Wiggins' passionate harp playing, filled with slow, pleasing wah-wahs. They got down and dirty with some great gut-bucket, Mississippi blues on "Walking Blues." This duo has been playing together round 25 years, and they blend their instruments and voices for some moving blues sound. The pair closed out their set with "Hard Times." Cephas' rich, mournful vocals blended well with Wiggin's sad harp sound and solid vocal harmonies. Every song the pair performed was greeted with roars of appreciation and cheers from the large crowd at the Tent Stage.
The flavor of the Festival was decidedly different on the Main Stage where Kansas City bluesman, D.C. Bellamy & America's Most Wanted took the stage. Talking with Bellamy just before the band performed, I found out that D.C. had just been released from the hospital for the show (despite objections by his doctor's). If that's not true blues dedication, I don't know what is! Backed by his able band including Whitaker Tippit (guitar), Danielle Schnebelen (bass), Jison Taylor (drums) and a harp player know only as "Catfish," Bellamy delighted the audience with his constant rapport, stories and wit, accompanied by some fine fine music. The set included a mix of covers and original material including a medley of "Nine Below Zero" and "She's Nineteen Years Old," the originals "You Must Be Crazy" and "There Ain't Nothin' Like A Woman," and other classics like "Chain of Fools" and "The Thrill Is Gone." Bellamy's cute, sexy bass player, Danielle Schnebelen kept the men riveted, prompting a humorous exclamation by Bellamy to "leave my bass player alone." Performing as the vocalist on at least one song, Schnebelen proved herself to be a fine vocalist, adding to her bass playing skills. Lead guitar duties were amply filled by Whitaker Tippit and harp fills were nicely done by Catfish and guest harpist, Tom "Trenchmouth" Baker. It was a great set that led nicely into the headline acts for the evening.
The evening performances featured a line up of true blues legends beginning with Chicago guitarist Jody Williams, accompanied by blues harp great, Carey Bell on the Tent Stage and guitar slinger, Coco Montoya on the Main Stage. Based on early crowd comments, this was a much-anticipated set, with many people looking forward to seeing Williams for the first time.
As expected, Williams showed the blues crowd Saturday why he is arguably the best pure blues guitar players in the word. Playing his black Gibson emblazoned in red with Black Lightin' Jody, he wowed the crowd with his precise, expressive playing, incredible guitar tone, and effective hand-sliding for a simple, tasteful slide guitar sound. Singing in a warm, strong, and husky voice, he captured the crowd with "Life Long Lover." His quick, expressive guitar fills and slower, briefly held and bent notes flowing out full and rich filled the tent with an incredible guitar sound. Jody told the crowd "I hope you're having fun because I sure am!" Jody served up a powerful version of the blues grinder "St. James Infirmary" playing sweet, soulful, rich chords and singing with soul and grit. His beautiful, passionate guitar playing goes right to the heart. Jody paid tribute to one of his influences, T-Bone Walker, with a medley of Walker's songs that included "T-Bone Shuffle" and "Tell Me What's the Reason." He played in Walker's ringing, fast strumming style with his own spin on things.
Carey Bell then came on stage for a short set with Jody. On "Low Down Dirty Shame" Carey blew some sweet, beautiful harmonica riffs that had a stringed harp richness and beauty to them. His ethereal, emotional harp was brought back to earth by his strong, husky vocals that rang out with emotion. Carey's powerful, West Side harp on "When I Get Drunk" had a slow, expressive quality that perfectly matched the lingering, soulful guitar licks from Jody's guitar. Carey blew some mean, low, slow and gritty back alley blues. While Carey and Jody had never played together before, they sounded great playing off each other. These two veterans know the blues in and out and their masterful playing together showed that. They closed with a blues grinder that had Carey playing long, slow powerful riffs with great town and low trills. He sang in his warm, rich voice that he would make sharp for emphasis.
At the Main Stage, solo artist and John Mayall alum, Coco Montoya took the stage in what offered some tremendous possibilities for collaborations, particularly given the presence of blues legend John Mayall at the festival and the John Mayall influenced Debbie Davies backstage, guitar in hand. The set did not disappoint anyone, offering lots of exceptional guitar by Montoya, great songs and guest appearances by Debbie Davies, Janiva Magness and a post-introduction by none other than John Mayall himself. The set included songs from Coco's solo efforts including "I Can't Get My Ass In Gear," "Casting My Spell On You" and "Get Your Business Straight," along with a duet with Debbie Davies on "you Didn't Think," including a trading of guitar licks and a guest vocal appearance by Janiva Magness on "Baby Baby." It was a great set and a perfect set up for the final Main Stage act of the evening, the incomparable John Mayall.
The final two acts of the evening continued the array of legends with appearances by Chicago guitarist Son Seals and British blues legend, John Mayall. Mayall's performance was preceded by the presentation of a Riverroad Lifetime Achievement Award to Mayall by the Mississippi Valley Blues Society for his contributions to blues music.
While John Mayall was receiving his award, The Son Seals Band opened their set on the Tent Stage. Seals was backed by a large, seven-piece band that included two horns, a fiddle, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and piano. The veteran players made for a solid ensemble sound to back one of the best living blues guitarists. Son kicked things off with his searing lead guitar on "Every Day I Have the Blues." His strong, low, snarling, growling guitar licks were blues guitar with attitude. Son looked and sounded strong, singing in his powerful, warm, deep voice that rang out with passion. While he did not play lead all the way through most numbers, letting his talented young guitarist handle lead in the middle of most songs, he is such a brilliant rhythm guitarist you find yourself focusing on that instead of the lead guitar. Son's version of "The Sky Is Crying" was a slow, stinging, echoing guitar sound which had everything to do with traditional blues. His expressive voice rang with emotion. Blues lovers may always think of Stevie Ray Vaughn when they hear this song, but once you hear Son Seals do it, you realize he has made this blues classic his own. Many times throughout his show Son brought the band down so he could softly play, picking, scratching, and rubbing the strings with subtle style and great sound. Son closed out his set with a powerful, emotional version of "Sadie." His strong, mournful guitar and sad tinged lyrics made another blues classic come to new life in the hands of a great blues man.
Once the award ceremony had concluded at the Main Stage, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers took control of the stage for the final performance of the evening. Originally from Manchester, England, Mayall now resides in California and was looking very Californian on Friday night in his shorts and tank top. The multi-talented Mayall is conformable on harp, guitar and keyboards and performed on all three instruments during the Friday night set. The musical set featured several songs from Mayall's latest release, Stories, as well as songs from his newly web released live CD, No Days Off.
The set opened with "Blow My Blues Away," followed by a commentary on the rekindling of interest in the blues by the younger generation called "Kids Turning On To The Blues." The set took on a more swampy, Southern flavor with the songs "Dirty Water" and "Witching Hour, " song that talked about voodoo and black magic. Mayall's band worked very well together, sharing the spotlight equally with Mayall. Mayall clearly was the leader of the band, but he didn't attempt to dominate the show in any way.
Mayall's set took a nice turn when guitarist Buddy Whittington performed an extended solo that included elements of Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and a very clean version of the "Star Spangled Banner," more than appropriate for the Fourth of July celebration. This was followed up by a nice version of Freddie King's "Hideaway" that included a nice extended harp solo by Mayall. The set also included the title track from the live CD, No Days Off, described by Mayall as the "anthem" of the band.
The set (and the evening) ended with a guest appearance by the ever-present (at least on Saturday & Sunday) Debbie Davies who performed J. B. Lenior's classic "Talk To Your Daughter." It was a nice end to a great day of music at the Festival, promising an exciting conclusion on Saturday.
Day 3 - Saturday, July 5
The final day of the Festival started with the traditional Sunday morning jam session led by Bubba Gibson's Blues Angels. Despite the more casual feeling that permeates any jam session, all of the musicians who performed were committed to putting out the best music possible. Billy Janey joined the blues jam on the Tent Stage for some great, bold, rocking blues on "Just Got Lucky." This veteran Iowa rocker and blues man had the crowd bopping to the music with his powerful, great tone guitar licks and strong, shouting vocals.
At the same time on the other end of the Festival grounds, the runner's up from the Iowa Blues Challenge, Blues Bureau performed for the festival early arrivals. Blues Bureau has been performing together for the past four years and have been in the semi-finals of the Blues Challenge twice, in addition to being runners up this year. The band put on a fine show, led by the strong vocals of Jody Bodly, backed by the excellent guitar work of Dewey Cantrell and some powerhouse saxophone by newcomer Don Brown. It was an excellent performance and a fine start to the final day of the Festival.
Among the highlights on the final day of the Festival included a set by the ageless Henry Townsend (93 years old); another by the Texas Double Threat of Junior Boy Jones and Tutu Jones; Excello recording artist, Lazy Lester, accompanied by the son of late blues legend Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy D. Lane; slide king Sonny Rhodes; jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson; blues diva E. C. Scott; the Mississippi hill country sound of Big Jack Johnson &The Oilers; concluding with a raw performance by "Bad" Bobby Rush.
The ageless wonder, Henry Townsend, was first to the Tent Stage after the conclusion of the jam session. Throughout his set, Townsend repeatedly thanked the audience for their support, indicating for than one that "Without you (the audience), there would be no me." Townsend's set included Henry performing songs on piano and guitar. As one of the last surviving musicians to work with the immortal Robert Johnson, Townsend's performance exuded history in every single note. Despite his age and the use of a wheelchair for mobility, Townsend is still a fine piano player and a dedicated musician as evidenced by the fact that he only reluctantly concluded his performance and surrendered the stage so that the crew could set up the stage for the next performance.
On the Main Stage, the "Texas Double Threat" of guitarists Tutu Jones and Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones wowed the crowd with some incredible guitar and a very entertaining set of Texas soul-blues. With backgrounds that include work with Freddie King, Katie Webster, ZZ Hill and Little Joe Blue, the two Texas bluesmen brought a wealth of talent to the stage in two very different packages. Junior Boy Jones is a big man with a big sound, featuring a guitar style that reflects his work with and the influence of Freddie King, the immortal Texas guitarist. Junior Boy also lets his guitar express his fire, remaining relatively calm while his guitar blazes. Tutu Jones on the other hand has a more slight build, plays an expressive guitar and is an extremely animated performer, moving constantly on and off stage as he works the crowd and plays his songs. Their set included songs from each of the performer's repertoires, generating a great synergy and a strong collaborative effort that the growing crowd at the Main Stage clearly did not want to see end. The set culminated with Tutu shedding his guitar and performing vocals on "My Girl" and concluding with a blazing version of "Goin' Down" with Junior Boy showing off his Freddie King influenced guitar talent.
Jazz Saxophonist Fred Anderson followed Henry Townsend on the Tent Stage, providing the only pure jazz performance of the Festival. Anderson is a clean, powerful sax player who mixed his set between smooth and more modern jazz with the incorporation of numerous African rhythms.
To continue the Texas flavor on the Main Stage, Sonny Rhodes made his scheduled appearance on the Main Stage a memorable one. With his unique lap steel blues guitar sound, Rhodes has made himself one of the standout performers of the blues on a very unique instrument. Rhodes' does his best to keep the tradition of Texas blues guitar alive with his powerful playing on his black Epiphone guitar and his lap steel. His veteran, talented backing band provided a solid foundation for his instrumental work and his often-gritty vocals, which are rasped with emotion. Kicking things off with "The Blues Is My Religion" Sonny played driving, jangling Texas blues guitar riffs. His short, hooking, soaring, swooping riffs on his lap steel drove "Black Cat Bone." He had his lap steel ringing out, then echoing out with vibrato as he slid and bent notes. Rhythm guitarist Billy Baltera played some great, fast riffs on his Gibson for a rich blues sound. Sonny wowed the crowd at the Band Shell Stage with his growling, raspy vocals and slow, soulful lap steel on "Since I Met You Baby." Notes rippled and echoed of his lap steel. Sonny even served up a little old school R&B to the large, enthusiastic crowd. Then Sonny stood up and took the microphone in hand on his heart-felt tribute to Johnny Clyde Copeland on the late blues legend's beautiful blues classic, "Life's Rainbow." Sonny stood at the front of the stage, singing smooth and soulful in his strong voice, then bringing his vocals down and drawn out with growling passion. He jumped in the air for emphasis. This was some great, powerful, and passionate blues by a talented blues master.
The much-anticipated appearance of Excello Records star, Lazy Lester and the son of Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy D. Lane, definitely raised the curiosity of the audience with the initial appearance of Jimmy D. Lane in a guitar slasher role. Dressed in knee high moccasins, a flat brimmed hat and sporting a fringed guitar strap, Lane's first three songs including Stevie Ray Vaughan's, "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and Hendrix', "Hey Joe" started the set off in a blazing inferno of guitar fire. Frankly, I initially wondered how the chemistry between Lane and the more straight up blues of Lazy Lester would manifest itself. Once Lester took the stage however, I was pleasantly surprised just how well the two performers meshed in the presentation of their blues music. Lester's vocals and harp riffs were smooth and cool with Lane backing and complimenting his sound perfectly. With songs like "Sugar Coated Love" and "I'm A Man", as well as other from Lester's Excello catalog, Lester and Lane gave the audience all the blues they ever wanted, just the way they liked it. The transition of Lane's earlier guitar pyrotechnics, melted away into some cool and very satisfying blues guitar, with Lester's harp and vocals making it even better.
E. C. Scott and her band Smoke took over the Main Stage following the stellar performance of Sonny Rhodes. Despite the fact that Rhodes and Scott are good friends, their sounds are very different. While Rhodes practices the more sparsely instrumented, but powerful, Texas style of blues, Scott's sound is much fuller and more soulful with the inclusion of keyboards and horns into her blues, soul and swing mix. Scott revved up the Band Shell Stage with her low, rich powerful vocals and great five-piece backing band. Her vocals and stage presence are filled with emotion, humor, suggestive lyrics, and winking naughtiness. Her powerful vocals on the fast rolling blues of "I'm Gonna Make a Man Out of You" had it all going. She is proud of being a big woman, and worked it into her original "The Other Side of Me." She was funky, saucy, soulful, and passionate as she sang in her warm, rich husky voice, dancing and kicking her feet out for emphasis. E.C. is simply one of the best live blues vocalists touring today. A great songwriter in addition to being a talented singer, she sums up her passion and attitude with her singing and style on "Doing My Own Thing." As her voice rang out with passion and attitude, her band provided a great ensemble sound behind her. E.C. served up some, soulful, old school R&B on "What a Good Feeling." Singing with a cordless mike, she worked her way through the crowded VIP section at the front of the stage, encouraging fans to sing the refrain over the mike, whipping the crowd into a dancing, passionate fever as they sang along in unison on the refrain. The outpouring of love and affection for E.C. and appreciation for her talents was obvious. After a powerful, soulful cover of "Stand by Me" E.C. left the stage and crowd rocking with energy and enthusiasm on "We're Gonna Party Tonight" pumping her fist with enthusiasm, the crowd singing, and everyone fired up by her energy and enthusiasm.
The first of the final two performers of the 19th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival were probably two of the most anticipated performers of the Festival. Starting the final pairing of the evening was Mississippi bluesman Big Jack Johnson & The Oilers. The Oilers started off the set without Big Jack, performing two songs; the first being exceptionally funk filled and offering an unexpected sound versus what many people in the audience expected. On the second song, "Serve Me Right To Suffer," the band moved right from the funk world to the juke joint with another excellent song. Jack's current band includes a keyboard player, giving the band a fuller sound than hear from the typical Oilers lineup. When Big Jack got up on the stage the sound moved right to the North Mississippi Hill Country, playing some heavy North Mississippi hypno-boogie. The set included a variety of songs and some excellent and unique guitar work, with songs including "Let It Roll" and "Things That I Used To Do."
Bobby Rush brought an excellent show to the Main Stage to finish off the 2003 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. Rush is a talented performer, incorporating music, humor, general entertainment and a raw sexuality that captivated the audience and kept all eyes glued to the stage, despite the increasing threat of bad weather. Rush set up an instant rapport with the audience that was filled with witty comebacks and an actual, brief cell phone conversation with Nikki, the friend of a member of the audience. Once Rush determined that Nikki was not the husband or boyfriend of the cell phone owner, Rush got on the phone and told Nikki that "Bobby Rush says for Nikki to get her butt down here!" Initially, Rush was dressed in pure white suit with a black tank top, opening with a funkified song entitled, "She's Fine." This was followed by "Evil" and "You Know What To Do," two songs that were raw as hell and incorporated the Bobby Rush Dancers, three young ladies who knew what to shake and how to shake it for the enthusiastic crowd. After the first three songs, Bobby Rush left the stage, returning shortly dressed in dark slacks and a sparkly blue shirt. For the entire 90-minute set, Rush never stopped moving and never working the crowd. Rush proved himself to not only be a fine singer, but an exceptional harp player as well, particularly on songs like, "I'm a Bluesman." The performance proved to be one of the best of a festival that was truly highlight-filled, with something memorable for everyone.
The 19th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival was, and continues to be, one of the best festivals in the country, offering a nice variety of blues, with a smattering of other related musical styles. The Festival also manages to bring in acts that most people in the Upper Midwest might not get to see unless they did a lot of traveling across the country. With in inclusion of several up close and personal workshops during the weekend that allow fans to visit with the performers and ask questions; a Blueskool for the kids to learn something about the blues from the performers and lots of food, music and an autograph table that the performers regularly visit, this is one fan friendly Festival. For more on the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival and the Mississippi Valley Blues Society, visit their website at www.mvbs.org, and plan on visiting next year's festival on July 2-4, 2004.
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Minneapolis, MN 55458-2983
E-mail Ray Stiles @ firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.